Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.
Terms of Art #40:
Definition: Simulacrum (plural: simulacra or the less popular simulacrums) can mean two things. Both have negative connotations.
First, it can just mean any slightly odd or off or surreal or vague-not-quite representation of something else, especially ones that have sort of creepy or disturbing capitalist undertones. Examples: a wax sculpture of Brad Pitt, over-filtered Instagram photos, bouquets of fake flowers (or even Edible Arrangements), Coachella’s hologram of Tupac.
Simulacrum also has a second, slightly different meaning. It is central to Jean Baudrillard’s theory (from the 1980s) that it has become impossible to tell what’s fake from what’s real.
On his view, a simulacrum is a copy without an original. What does that mean? Examples:
they’re not modeled on a specific person
- CGI creations
He’s based on a character in a book who is based on … ogres in general I guess? but that book character isn’t real and ogres don’t exist…
- copies of copies
Okay so this is a common example, but I don’t get it. Like, if I make a copy of a handout, and then a student makes a copy of *their* copy for someone else, there’s still an original handout…
But sometimes it seems like a simulacrum is a copy that isn’t based on something real. And “real” here has a pretty specific meaning (that tbh is pretty difficult to understand). Real stuff is, like, natural and sometimes even sounds like it means pre-cultural. So an actual pine tree in your yard is real, but a plastic Christmas tree is not (even though in a different sense, plastic is definitely real and plastic trees are therefore also real). You see how this is confusing?
But you need to get in that headspace, where plastic trees aren’t real trees and therefore aren’t real, period. So now think of Disneyworld, which is just chock full of shit that isn’t real. Or so-called “reality” TV, where the central preoccupation of everyone participating seems to be to convince themselves that participants (actors?) are being “authentic” or feeling “real” things.
Why care about this stuff? Baudrillard thinks that at this point in history, simulacra are everywhere and we can’t even tell what’s real and what’s not. You can think of stuff like deepfakes, but it’s way more widespread. For example, Disney media and romcom narratives have so pervasively dictated our sense of what love is that now there’s no such thing as real love anymore because we’re too poisoned all the way down by this mutual reflecting of copies and variations and unreality.
Even that seemingly “real” pine tree in your yard – you see it through the lens of the pine tree emoji and Christmas tree imagery and it should be a sort of nice, longish isosceles triangle… And now because of all that you can’t experience or access the real tree anymore.
Or, at least, that’s Baudrillard’s view.
hyperreal and hyperreality – the current state where we can’t tell what’s real and what’s not
Not to be confused with:
simulation – according to this whole Baudrillardian taxonomy, a simulation is just a copy of something that is real (but like an event, process, or situation), like practice tests or fire drills
And now, to show you that it’s not all bad, please enjoy one of the most joyous simulacra that the world has to offer, Hatsune Miku, the Japanese pop star/software/databank:
June 9, 2020 at 9:27 am
Baudrillard suffers because of oversimplifications like this. Simulation is not about something exceptional, but about the way we construct -and the political and technical limits which restrict this construction- objects, i.e. the way in which we are able to refer to things.
The simulacrum is not something that’s not “real” and the “real” is definitely not the “natural”. “Real” (a modern concept, going back roughly to the 17th century) is defined by B. as “that which can be adequately reproduced”, but it gets indeed complicated and is in constant subtextual dialogue with his critique of the lacanian real – and other stuff.
The simulacrum goes back to Plato’s ὁμοίωμα. Although Baudrillard is no platonist (and the Matrix’s run-of-the-mill philosophical conspiracy took him as wrong as can be) but a nietzschean, his simulacrum is not a term for something that appeared in the late 20th century: it is just a word for an instance of an order of reference. There are different orders of simulacra (counterfeit, production, simulation).
The current order of reference is called by B. hyperreality, and functions through simulation. The hyperreal (see “real” above) is that which “has always already been reproduced”. Simulation (and coding/the code) is the process that actualizes this hyperreal order of reference. Simulation is now what production was for the previous paradigm. Note that reference is obviously a relational quality.
Reposting, remixing, networking, cloning, creating self-generating stuff (from youtube’s algorithm to nanotechnological micromachines), turning stuff into media, all these things we do belong by default to our universe of simulation. “Post-truth” and “fake news” are recent buzzwords for people that caught up with what B. (and others) had been expounding on since the 1970s.
The world gets blurrier, and people are shooting the messenger.
I like your series, but I think we need to be more rigorous and austere in presenting terms like these.